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A Manifesto for Economic Sense

More than four years after the financial crisis began, the world's major advanced economies remain deeply depressed, in a scene all too reminiscent of the 1930s. And the reason is simple: we are relying on the same ideas that governed policy in the 1930s. These ideas, long since disproved, involve profound errors both about the causes of the crisis, its nature, and the appropriate response.

These errors have taken deep root in public consciousness and provide the public support for the excessive austerity of current fiscal policies in many countries. So the time is ripe for a Manifesto in which mainstream economists offer the public a more evidence-based analysis of our problems.

  • The causes. Many policy makers insist that the crisis was caused by irresponsible public borrowing. With very few exceptions - other than Greece - this is false. Instead, the conditions for crisis were created by excessive private sector borrowing and lending, including by over-leveraged banks. The collapse of this bubble led to massive falls in output and thus in tax revenue. So the large government deficits we see today are a consequence of the crisis, not its cause.
  • The nature of the crisis. When real estate bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic burst, many parts of the private sector slashed spending in an attempt to pay down past debts. This was a rational response on the part of individuals, but - just like the similar response of debtors in the 1930s - it has proved collectively self-defeating, because one person's spending is another person's income. The result of the spending collapse has been an economic depression that has worsened the public debt.
  • The appropriate response. At a time when the private sector is engaged in a collective effort to spend less, public policy should act as a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending. At the very least we should not be making things worse by big cuts in government spending or big increases in tax rates on ordinary people. Unfortunately, that's exactly what many governments are now doing.
  • The big mistake. After responding well in the first, acute phase of the economic crisis, conventional policy wisdom took a wrong turn - focusing on government deficits, which are mainly the result of a crisis-induced plunge in revenue, and arguing that the public sector should attempt to reduce its debts in tandem with the private sector. As a result, instead of playing a stabilizing role, fiscal policy has ended up reinforcing and exacerbating the dampening effects of private-sector spending cuts.

In the face of a less severe shock, monetary policy could take up the slack. But with interest rates close to zero, monetary policy - while it should do all it can - cannot do the whole job. There must of course be a medium-term plan for reducing the government deficit. But if this is too front-loaded it can easily be self-defeating by aborting the recovery. A key priority now is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.

How do those who support present policies answer the argument we have just made? They use two quite different arguments in support of their case.

The confidence argument. Their first argument is that government deficits will raise interest rates and thus prevent recovery. By contrast, they argue, austerity will increase confidence and thus encourage recovery.

But there is no evidence at all in favour of this argument. First, despite exceptionally high deficits, interest rates today are unprecedentedly low in all major countries where there is a normally functioning central bank. This is true even in Japan where the government debt now exceeds 200% of annual GDP; and past downgrades by the rating agencies here have had no effect on Japanese interest rates. Interest rates are only high in some Euro countries, because the ECB is not allowed to act as lender of last resort to the government. Elsewhere the central bank can always, if needed, fund the deficit, leaving the bond market unaffected.

Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF's study is clear - budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now - the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.

For the truth is, as we can now see, that budget cuts do not inspire business confidence. Companies will only invest when they can foresee enough customers with enough income to spend. Austerity discourages investment.

So there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination.

The structural argument. A second argument against expanding demand is that output is in fact constrained on the supply side - by structural imbalances. If this theory were right, however, at least some parts of our economies ought to be at full stretch, and so should some occupations. But in most countries that is just not the case. Every major sector of our economies is struggling, and every occupation has higher unemployment than usual. So the problem must be a general lack of spending and demand.

In the 1930s the same structural argument was used against proactive spending policies in the U.S. But as spending rose between 1940 and 1942, output rose by 20%. So the problem in the 1930s, as now, was a shortage of demand not of supply.

As a result of their mistaken ideas, many Western policy-makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples. But the ideas they espouse about how to handle recessions were rejected by nearly all economists after the disasters of the 1930s, and for the following forty years or so the West enjoyed an unparalleled period of economic stability and low unemployment. It is tragic that in recent years the old ideas have again taken root. But we can no longer accept a situation where mistaken fears of higher interest rates weigh more highly with policy-makers than the horrors of mass unemployment.

Better policies will differ between countries and need detailed debate. But they must be based on a correct analysis of the problem. We therefore urge all economists and others who agree with the broad thrust of this Manifesto to register their agreement at www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, and to publically argue the case for a sounder approach. The whole world suffers when men and women are silent about what they know is wrong.

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Signed By

Aaron Goldzimer - Stanford Graduate School of Business / Yale Law School
Alan Manning - London School of Economics
Alan Maynard - University of York
Alan S. Blinder - Princeton University
Alasdair Smith - University of Sussex
Alfonso Lasso de la Vega - Former Deputy Director in UNCTAD
Ali Rattansi - Professor, City University, London
Andrew Graham - Oxford University
Barbara Petrongolo - Queen Mary University and CEP (LSE)
Barbara Wolfe - University of Wisconsin-Madison
Barry Bluestone - Northeastern University
Barry Supple - University of Cambridge
Charles Wyplosz - The Graduate Institute, Geneva
Chris Pissarides - London School of Economics and Political Science
Christian Kroll - University of Bremen / Jacobs University
Christopher Allsopp - Director, Oxford Insitute for Energy Studies, Oxford
Colin Thain - University of Birmingham, UK
David Blanchflower - Dartmouth College
David Hemenway, economist - Harvard School of Public Health
David Sapsford - Edward Gonner Professor of Applied Economics (Emeritus), University of Liverpool
David Soskice - University of Oxford
David Vines - Oxford University
Demetrios Papathanasiou - The World Bank
Donald R. Davis - Columbia University, Dept. of Economics
Eric van Wincoop - University of Virginia
Erzo F.P. Luttmer - Dartmouth College
G C Harcourt - University of New South Wales, School of Economics
Gary Mongiovi - St Johns University, New York
Geoffrey M. Hodgson - Professor, University of Hertfordshire, UK
Geraint Johnes - Lancaster University
Gianni Zanini - World Bank (Consultant; former Lead Economist)
Hannes Schwandt - CEP/LSE and Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Heinz Kurz - University of Graz, Austria
J. Bradford DeLong - U.C. Berkeley
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve - University College London & LSE Centre for Economic Performance
Jeffrey Frankel - Harvard University
Jeremy Hardie - LSE Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science
Joan Costa Font - London Sschool of Economics
Jocelyn Boussard - European Commission
John H Bishop - Cornell University
John Van Reenen - Centre for Economic Performance, LSE
Jonathan Portes - National Institute of Economic and Social Research
Joseph Gagnon - Peterson Institute for International Economics
Justin Wolfers - Princeton University
Kalim Siddiqui - Business School, University of Huddersfield, UK
Ken Coutts - Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge
Kevin ORourke - University of Oxford
Larry L Duetsch - Emeritus Prof of Econ, U of Wisconsin - Parkside
Lesley Potters - European Commission
Marcus Miller - Warwick University
Mariana Mazzucato - University of Sussex
Mark Setterfield - Trinity College, Connecticut
Mark Stewart - Warwick University
Max Steuer - London School of Economics
Michael Ambrosi - Professor Emeritus, University of Trier
Michael Graff - ETH Zurich and Jacobs University Bremen
Michael Waterson - University of Warwick
Nathan Cutler - Harvard Kennedy School
Nattavudh Powdthavee - University of Melbourne and Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Sciences
Nicholas Rau - University College London
Olaf Storbeck - Handelsblatt - Germanys Business and Financial Daily
Oriana Bandiera - London School of Economics
P.E. - Emeritus Professor of Economics,University of Reading
Patricia Rice - University of Oxford
Paul Anand - Open University/ HERC Oxford University
Paul Gregg - Professor, Dept of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath
Paul Krugman - Princeton University
Peter E. Earl - University of Queensland
Peter Elias - University of Warwick
Peter J. Hammond - University of Warwick
Peter Taylor-Gooby - University of Kent
Peter Temin - MIT
Philip Arestis - University of Cambridge
Philippe Martin - sciences po (paris)
Professor Paul Whiteley - University of Essex
Professor Sir Richard Jolly - Institute of Development Studies
Raffaella Sadun - Harvard Business School
Raja Junankar - University of New South Wales, University of Western Sydney, and IZA
Raquel Fernandez - NYU
Richard J. Smith - Faculty of Economics University of Cambridge
Richard Jackman - London School of Economics
Richard Layard - LSE Centre for Economic Performance
Richard Murray - former chief economist, Swedish Agency for Public Management
Richard Parker - Harvard University
Rick van der Ploeg - University of Oxford
Robert A. Feldman - IMF and Adjunct Professor Georgetown U. (retired)
Robert H. Frank - Cornell University
Robert Haveman - University of Wisconsin-Madison
Robert Neild - Emeritus Professor,Trinity College, Cambridge
Robert Pollack - Boston University
Robert Skidelsky - Wawick University
Roger Middleton - University of Bristol
Roger Stephen Crisp - St Annes College, Oxford
Ronald Schettkat - Schumpeter School, University of Wuppertal
Sergio Rossi - Department of Economics, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Shaun P. Hargreaves Heap - University of East Anglia
Sheila Dow - University of Stirling (emeritus position)
Simon Wren-Lewis - Oxford University
Stefan Szymanski - University of Michigan
Stephen E. Spear - Carnegie Mellon University
Stephen Gibbons - London School of Economics
Susan Himmelweit - The Open University, UK
Terry Barker - University of Cambridge
Tony Venables - University of Oxford
Victor Halberstadt - Leiden University
Wendy Carlin - UCL
William Brown - University of Cambridge
William T. Dickens - Northeastern University and The Brookings Institution

 

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Recent Comments

  • Lets hope we come to our senses soon. I would love to see some mention of true-cost accounting in the manifesto. Grappling with the unintended consequences of economic activity such as climate change are essential for any rational approach to long term economic (and existential) security. Some case for a green-conversion economy should be part of any expansionary economic proposal.
    Dan
  • Glass-Steagall was clearly the right idea, as is evident by the result of its repeal. When deregulation allowed financiers to distort the "game" to their advantage, the resulting imbalance and crash was logically inevitable. As parents, we would agree that "deregulation" of our children would be insanity. As a society, perhaps the current scene will convince us that deregulation of the banking/finance industry is equally insane.
    Robert Volin
  • I agree with the thrust of this manifesto. My fervid wish is that this Manifesto will contribute to changing the course of the way this crisis is handled.
    Henk de Vos
  • As a German taxpayer, it is distressing to see the dogmatism and lack of debate on economic issues among Germanys leaders. Politicians failure to admit to the citizens the degree to which Germany has profited from the euro is leading to an increasingly populistic tone that is divorced from economic reality.
    Jonathan Schroer, CFA
  • Excellent summary, but would add green fiscal policy: investment in energy saving and renewables is labour intensive, offers double dividend of reduced unemployment and emissions, much more effective than QE.
    Felix FitzRoy
  • We are bereft of political leaders of vision at a time when that lack of acuity risks hurling Europe over the precipice. Plan A could never work and isn working, instead it is part of the problem -Plan B is long overdue.
    Brian Fitzpatrick
  • Congrats on this well reasoned and sensible approach. As an Irish man I despair on a daily basis at our governments inability to make a case for the maltreatment for Ireland which is borne, not out of a sense of duty on their part, but due to a complete lack of understanding of the issues and no doubt some degree of stockholm syndrome. I wrote a piece on this, which is slightly out of date now, last February and circulated to a number of our politicians in the hope some of it would stick. http://acassconsult.com/attachments/File/Acass_Economic_Monitor_-_February_2012.pdf
    Kevin Barrins
  • I hope your appeal will be heard. Signed : a desperate french man !
    Luc GIDON
  • I strongly support the manifesto: its economic arguments are sound.
    Sergio Rossi
  • We have enabled a neoliberal philosophy free reign not only in the economic, but also in the social domain. We need to rethink not only our economic philosophies, but also our social presumptions.
    Melinda
  • It is sickening to think of the suffering being caused by the republican politicians of this country in the name of obtaining political power. They know exactly what they are doing and are manipulating the issue to make sure Obama fails and they win without any regard to the social costs. In fact, the social costs play in their favor because damaging the middle class leads to higher bargaining power for those left with the money and political control.
    Gregory Xikes
  • Outstanding! Wonderful to see that some of our preeminent economists have the courage to try to organize to force governments and other organizations to wake up and think more rationally in their approach to such important and central issues. I hope many more economists get on board: its their chance to correct a lot of wrongs and effect tremendous positive change for so many people.
    Dr. Frank Wolf
  • One would think that The Great Lesson of the 20th Century would be the enormity of our ability as humans to rationalize practices that are in fact indefensible. This tendency explains the bad behavior of war criminals, cynical politicians, and as we can now see, academic economists.
    Bill Brinker
  • Finally, a succinct, reasoned approach to the crisis at hand. Very different from the mindless, political soundbites we e subjected to.....
    Michael E Nicholson
  • Important and obviously correct. I do consider it generous to proceed on the assumption that our economic decision makers are mistaken in their choice of medicine. I appreiciate that the manifesto covers a wide breadth of nations, but in the UK especially the choice of austerity sits nicely with our incumbants predeliction for demonising the poor and slashing public spending.
    Alexander King
  • I chair this organisation which has members in 13 European countries. I am a retired teacher of economics and politics who has been presenting exactly the same arguments as in this article. I wish be active in presenting conferences on these lines. Alan Frommer
    Alan
  • "Basic Economics"
    Claudio Vieira
  • Concordo pienamente, le scelte politiche di Merkel & Co. sono sciocche e suicide, per lEuropa, per la democrazia, per leconomia e anche soltanto per il buon senso comune. O costoro sono rimbambiti del tutto o perseguono incoscienti obiettivi opposti a quelli proclamati. E ora di fermarli prima che sia troppo tardi.
    Graziano PRIOTTO
  • At last! A brave attack on the chaotic approaches of traditional economics. Thank you, professors!
    Pantelis Andrikopoulos
  • The solution to the Latin American debt crises taught us taught us that international cooperation and leadership are needed to find the way out of an obscure tunnel. Brady program brought back the region from the lost decade.
    Victor Peirone